Joys of the Classical Guitar

Guitarist Rene Izquierdo joins the Philomusica Quartet, with lovely results.

By - May 6th, 2014 04:45 pm
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Rene Izquierdo

Rene Izquierdo

In its six years of existence, the Philomusica Quartet has come to be known for its members’ ability to effectively capture the ambience of period works, but the quartet exceeded expectations Monday night in their final season concert at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music. They presented Beethoven’s last quartet in a new light and introduced three works that most in the near-capacity audience were hearing for the first time in a performance that captured the spirit of each work – each a highlight in its own way. Philomusica members violinists Jeanyi Kim and Alexander Mandl, violist Nathan Hackett and cellist Adrien Zitoun were joined by classical guitarist, Rene Izquierdo for the second half of the concert. Izquierdo, a professor of classical guitar at UW-Milwaukee, has been an active solo performer and chamber musician, but is heard far too infrequently in Milwaukee.

The Philomusica opened the concert with a 20th century work by Amy Beach, Quartet for Strings, Op 89 (1929).  Beach fashioned a one-movement quartet from a set of Innuit songs. The tonal range of the melodies were limited; the phrases short. The material created a sound world that was unfamiliar, but very accessible. The work opened on a slow, serious tone, building imperceptibly at first. Violist Hackett introduced the first melody, a mournful solo. A second and third short theme followed, with limited development except for a growing intensity, eventually becoming more strident, then returning to the “grave” marking of the opening. The work was austere and beautiful throughout.

The Philomusica has been introducing a Beethoven quartet in each of its recent concerts. This one featured Beethoven’s last – String Quartet in F Major, Op 135 (1826). Beethoven used sparse writing, building from brief fragments until a unified theme emerged. You sense that Beethoven, in composing this, eliminated all the notes he could to reveal the essence of the work. The Philomusica interpreted the quartet with great restraint. Most sections call for independent short phrasing by each player, often explicitly in conversation with one another. The quartet found the balance in this design. Even the legato phrasing in the lovely “cantante e tranquil” second movement was carefully parsed. Beethoven often wrote dramatic material even for four players, but this is an all-chamber work with no heroic pretensions.

Astor Piazzolla infused most all of his compositions with the rhythm and energy of the tango. “Tango Sensations” (1991) took this to a new level by introducing a series of expressive movements that most of all conveyed the emotions intended. Guitarist Izquierdo joined the quartet for this work, transcribed from the original version that featured a bandoneón (a South American variation of the accordion) rather than guitar. The Quartet selected three of five movements. “Asleep” gently stirs as one appears at the start of day. “Anxiety” reveals bits of tension, incorporating short string strokes and never settling on a clear melody for the strings. “Fear” increases the tension a bit. Mandl’s violin produced a sound much like balloons being rubbed. The tension finds release in dance, as the tango rhythm – mostly in Izquierdo’s guitar in the other movements – is embraced by the strings as well. The plucked strings of the classical guitar marked simple themes and sounded clearly above the restrained strings. Legato strings and pizzicato guitar blended very well. Piazzolla’s most interesting works are not really tangos, but introspective compositions about this musical form.

The closing work featured Izquierdo in a classical work — Guitar Quintet No 4 in D Major by Luigi Boccherini (1798). At the end of the 19th century, the guitar was a familiar choice in chamber compositions. Only as the violin’s family of instruments continued to improve, did the volume and finesse of these strings begin to outclass the more subtle contribution of the classical guitar. The Philomusica choose to program a quintet that explicitly celebrated Spanish themes. After an opening movement that retained the grace and restraint of 19th century courtly music, the quintet opened up – slowing assimilating the energy and open style of Spanish dance. Especially in a recurring raucous theme, the quartet let loose. Izquierdo’s guitar decorated the themes at double the pace. By the final “Fandango” movement, celebration ensued, Kim balanced the violin on her chin while tapping castanets, then Zitoun took over that role. Boccherini, a virtuoso cellist, saved the most challenging role for the cello – including a recurring rising motif at the highest registers of the cello that added to the unique character of the work. This work did not seem to be rooted in the 19th century, but fit a timely Cinco de Mayo celebration.

After a standing ovation, the quintet offered a brief encore – the second movement of Vivaldi’s D Major Concerto for Lute. This easily adapted work featured the guitar. Izquierdo approached this gentle, familiar tune with an exquisite sense of timing. Relaxed phrases spilled out while the strings offered a retrained harmony.

I look forward to additional exposure of the guitar in the local chamber music scene. And I would like to hear more selections by long neglected American composer Amy Beach.

0 thoughts on “Review: Joys of the Classical Guitar”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Thank you Michael.

    Glad you enjoyed the program and our playing. Actually, the sounds Mandl made were the “chicharra” effects = cicada like sound; intended by the composer and tradition.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Well-written review as usual, Michael Barndt!

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